The strings of West Africa sing generously on two new recordings by acknowledged masters of the guitar, the harp-like kora and the lute-like ngoni. Their sounds might seem reserved, even foreign, to American ears. But their lyricism, rhythmic immediacy and almost ethereal grace are welcoming to any culture.
Ali and Toumani is a final instrumental duet album by guitarist Ali Farka Toure and kora guru Toumani Diabate. Cut during three afternoons in London in June 2005, it sports sublime dialogues that possess an effortlessly — and often deceptively — light timbre. On the opening Toure tune Ruby, Diabate's kora strings dance elegantly about dark, almost bluesy patterns designed by Toure. But on Diabate's brief Fantasy, we hear the gorgeous, whispery spaciousness of Toure's playing expand with almost orchestral elegance.
Toure was in ill health during the making of Ali and Toumani. His struggles with the recording sessions are documented in candid detail by Diabate in the album notes. Toure died eight months after the record was completed, but you hear no pain in these sessions. What dominates is the hushed, rootsy spiritualism of two pioneers who fashioned the majestic music of West Africa for the world.
Kouyate — who has collaborated extensively with Toure and Diabate and, like Toure, grew up along the banks of the River Niger — is viewed as a defining generational voice of the ngoni. A stringed instrument shaped like a small cricket bat, it reveals numerous rhythmic, harmonic and percussive sounds.
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The debut American release for Sub Pop's New Ambience label, Kouyate's I Speak Fula is a beautifully textured work that unfolds with neatly animated passages on the ngoni and chant-like vocal passages led by Amy Sacko, Kouyate's wife. Such inspirations converge during the dance-like elegance of Torin Torin, and Diabate adds kora colors to the lightly percolating rhythms of Jamana Be Diya and Tineni.
But the highlight is Musow, which reflects the electric pulse and propulsive rhythm of a world — be it Africa or America — in unceasing motion.